Forgiveness Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be

You've probably heard that forgiveness reduces stress and can provide peace and closure. But Slate advice columnist Emily Yoffe says that's not always true. She tells host Michel Martin that sometimes it's better to cut ties, especially in the case of abusive parents. Psychiatrist Richard Friedman also joins the conversation (This interview originally aired on Mar. 11, 2013 on Tell Me More).

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to talk about the other side of this question. We'd like to look at whether there are times when forgiving someone doesn't bring peace but pain - pain so great that even the closest ties need to be cut. Slate.com advice columnist Emily Yoffe wrote about a particular scenario we wanted to talk about today, one which will probably be talked about more as this country ages. Her piece is titled "The Debt: What Do Grown Children Owe Their Terrible, Abusive Parents?" Also with us is Dr. Richard Friedman. He was quoted in the Slate piece and he wrote about so-called toxic parents himself for The New York Times. He's a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College.

I caught up with them recently and Emily Yoffe told us about comments from readers that got her thinking about the topic.

EMILY YOFFE: Well, one I got a couple of years ago was from a man who was very brutally abused by his mother. She used to beat him up and say, you can take it, you're a male - a horrible, horrible childhood. He completely cut off relations with her; hadn't spoken to her in many years. He was married, had children, and heard that his mother was dying. And he was getting terrible pressure from friends, family members, his wife, to - I hate this word - have closure, to forgive her, to see her at the end because he would feel so guilty if he didn't have a reconciliation. And he was writing to me about the pressure he was getting, and what was his obligation?

MARTIN: What did you tell him, if you don't mind my asking?

YOFFE: Oh, absolutely - because I had dealt with this issue before, and heard from other people. I think sometimes, what people who are saying forgive don't recognize is, there can be a tremendous cost to the person who was abused to go back to the abuser and say, all is forgiven. And I've heard from people who start getting what - I'm no psychiatrist - would sound like severe PTSD symptoms. So I...

MARTIN: Post-traumatic stress.

YOFFE: Right. So I said, this is not a cost-free thing these other people are asking you to do. And often, these people get pressure from others who really don't get what this childhood was like. And good for them because they had wonderful parents. And he, basically, was looking for someone to say, it's OK that you can't do this. And I - that's what I said.

MARTIN: Dr. Friedman, you are a psychiatrist, and I would imagine that this has come up in your life as well, and in your practice as well. Obviously, every case is different. But how do you go about determining, or helping someone understand, whether the cost is too high?

RICHARD FRIEDMAN: You know, I wrote that piece, basically, because I was convinced that there were some people who really just should not be parents, and that some of the behavior and the damage that was done by these parents was irretrievably bad; and that to ask these people to go back and try to, quote, "repair" their relationship with their parents would do more harm than good.

MARTIN: I want to play a clip from a conversation I had recently - I alluded to this in my introduction. It was with Frederic Luskin; he's director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. What he's literally trying to teach people, tools to forgive people. And this is what he had to say. I asked him if there are some things that are literally, unforgivable. And this is what he had to say.

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FREDERICK LUSKIN: The problem with saying that something is unforgivable is, it's really painful to imagine that somebody's life essentially stopped at the worst moment of their life. I can't imagine a more harrowing prison.

MARTIN: What about that, Dr. Friedman? I mean, the argument is that if you say something's unforgivable then that thing - whatever that thing is - it's still imprisoning you.

FRIEDMAN: It's a very good point because it actually gets to the heart of this, which is that the forgiveness is really not about the parent or the person that you think has mistreated you. It really has to do with, you know, your own psychological well-being from that point on. And, you know, when he says it's a prison, what may be just as imprisoning, actually, is to tell somebody - in a way which is not reasonable - you should go back and try to fix things. In my mind, the concept of forgiveness really allows the person basically to say, I've done everything that I can to repair this relationship, but there's no way to do it. This person is just going to be painfully abusive to me, and so I'm going to learn to call it a day. Now, if you call that forgiveness, I would say that's a reasonable outcome. But to say that everything can be repaired, and everything can be fixed and forgiven, is just not reasonable given the facts.

MARTIN: Emily, in a number of cases you cited in your story - and this is, in fact - I think something that people might have been familiar with, with a number of celebrities who had parents - people who have become very successful, you know; affluent. But then the parent - who may have been really terrible, or just neglectful - comes back looking for money. What do you tell people?

YOFFE: My suggestion is that the people who are writing to me do what makes them feel best in the situation. Now, some people feel, I can't be a moral and good person if I don't help in some way. But I think it's really important - I talked to one therapist who said, I advise some of my patients in this situation maybe to put themselves in a bit of a shark cage so they aren't reiterating this very damaging relationship. Maybe you send money, if you can do that. If you don't have the money, you can't send the money.

People can be re-victimized by the sense that you must forgive and move on, and that's going to mean reconciliation and helping. I don't think that that's the case. I think people can accept things were bad; move on. It doesn't mean they're stuck. And what's missing in this discussion of forgiveness is the sense of reciprocity. Where is the acknowledgement by the abusive parent? I'm sorry, I didn't give you the childhood you deserve - that very rarely comes.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about the question of forgiveness. Previously on this program, we talked about the Forgiveness Project - psychologists and faith leaders urging people to learn the habits of forgiveness. Now, we're giving a different perspective; and our base here is a piece by columnist Emily Yoffe, for Slate, called "What Do Grown Children Owe Their Terrible, Abusive Parents?"

Is it your impression, Emily Yoffe, that people want to skip right to the forgiveness part without the repentance part?

YOFFE: Absolutely. I think our current idea of forgiveness is that it's some kind of healing balm for the person who forgives - you will feel better because you forgive. And there's no obligation on the other person's part. At best, forgiveness is a two-way street, and I just don't think people should be told, you're stuck at the worst point in your life if you don't forgive.

MARTIN: Dr. Friedman, do you have any thoughts about this, too? And I think maybe we are entering into theological territory here as well as psychological territory.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It seems that people are told that they're not allowed to expect anything...

FRIEDMAN: Right...

MARTIN: ...from the other person so...

FRIEDMAN: Right. Well, I think that Emily is exactly right. I mean, the whole concept of forgiveness, it seems to me, is based on the idea that somebody who's done something wrong to you acknowledges that and says, I'm sorry, and gives you an explanation - I was going through a terrible time; I didn't know myself; I was irredeemably bad. I want another chance.

But before you can forgive somebody, there has to be an acknowledgement of transgression.. But to ask somebody who is the victim of abuse to simply give a carte blanche forgiveness, is a psychologically meaningless and potentially, really harmful task to set them.

MARTIN: You know, Emily, I'm dying to know what kind of reaction you got to this piece because in some ways, it's a very bracing and difficult subject...

YOFFE: Right. And I...

MARTIN: ...that kind of goes against the grain of what it is that we're actually taught.

YOFFE: And I took a very tough stance, saying sometimes, there's no closure; you just need to close the door. And I expected to get a lot of criticism. I was astounded by the reaction. We got more than 2,000 comments to the piece in Slate, and it became a mass group therapy session. People said, thank you because I felt this pressure people don't understand.

MARTIN: Dr. Friedman, what about you? When you've written about this, what reaction do you get?

FRIEDMAN: I anticipated a lot of criticism from colleagues of mine, but what happened was an avalanche. I mean, literally hundreds - if not thousands - of emails, and they were going back and forth between one another, and creating this kind of virtual therapeutic community. It made me think, gosh, it's very hard to be a parent and that - you know, maybe not all of these stories are stories of truly toxic parents. But there are a tremendous number of people out there who feel that in some way - in some shape or form - they had less than the - far less than the ideal experience, growing up and having a parent.

MARTIN: Dr. Richard Friedman is a psychiatrist; he's professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. He wrote a 2009 New York Times essay called "When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate." And he joined us from our bureau in New York. Emily Yoffe writes the Dear Prudence advice column for Slate.com. She also wrote the recent Slate story "The Debt: What Do Grown Children Owe Their Terrible, Abusive Parents?" And she joined us here in our Washington, D.C., studios.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

YOFFE: YOFFE: Great to be here.

FRIEDMAN: Great to be here. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Have a happy Memorial Day. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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